An essay on the most famous Indian revolutionary and why everyone is in a rush to paint him a certain colour.
In the last week of April, 2016 a controversy arose over the usage of the word terrorist to describe the revolutionaries of Indian’s freedom struggle in a Delhi University reference book on modern Indian History. The book titled India’s struggle for independence (Bipin Chandra, 1987) has used the term revolutionary terrorists for Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen and others several times in Chapter 20 which is even titled Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen and the revolutionary terrorists. However, there are other instances where the term “revolutionary terrorists” has been used in the book. It is therefore, too early to announce a verdict on this issue or join a camp (left, fight or centre) even if it appeals to us emotionally or hurts our sentiment.
Before, proceeding further I believe it is necessary to mention that Bhagat Singh’s family had written a letter to HRD Minister Smriti Irani, seeking intervention in this regard and demanded appropriate changes in the textbook. 
Terrorism: Understanding What it means.
To understand the outrage upon the association of the word terrorist with revolutionary, we have to take into account not just the different definitions of the words terrorist and terrorism but, also consider the changing geo-political relations and how some events have drastically changed (can change) the meaning of various words and how it is used.
Referencing Schmid’s 1992 proposal, the Supreme Court of India described terrorist acts as the “peacetime equivalents of war crimes”.  (Human Rights, 2004)
Although, there are more definitions of the word but, for now we will use the one adopted by the Supreme Court of India. We must however, keep in mind the global context of the word as we will see later in this essay.
Now, if we only talk about the context of the word terrorist in early 20th century pre 1947, which is also the period of the two World Wars, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and various other significant events that have shaped the course of human history, we will see the word terrorist being used in different ways by different groups.
In the 1929 Manifesto of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, titled
Philosophy of the bomb (Vohra & SIngh) the word Terrorism is used to describe the more violent nature of the activities of HSRA.
“Thus has terrorism been born in the country. It is a phase, a necessary, an inevitable phase of the revolution. Terrorism is not the complete revolution and the revolution is not complete without terrorism. This thesis can be supported by an analysis of any and every revolution in history. Terrorism instils fear in the hearts of the oppressors, it brings hopes of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses, it gives courage and self-confidence to the wavering, it shatters the spell of the superiority of the ruling class and raises the status of the subject race in the eyes of the world, because it is the most convincing proof of a nation’s hunger for freedom. Here in India, as in other countries in the past, terrorism will develop into the revolution and the revolution into independence, social political and economic.” 
The contention that many scholars of history and politics have with the usage of the word Terrorist in describing the revolutionaries of India’s freedom struggle has in my opinion stemmed from the way it has been associated with Islamic Terrorism since the terrorist attack on USA on September 11, 2001 by the terrorist group infamously known as Al-Qaeda.
On that dreadful day, the course of our history was changed. A new form of terrorism had arisen that surpassed all previous acts of terror in cruelty and is till now the most devastating terrorist attack with the highest number of casualties seen in times of peace. Much of global politics since has been shaped by this event the effects of which will be witnessed by our next generation.
Let’s recall the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814 by Harkat-Ul-Mujaheedin, a Pakistan-based Islamic extremist group. It was an act of terror against the state of India but, it differs from the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on 26th November, 2008. The former act was a threat to kill Indian citizens in an attempt to force India to release captive terrorists while the latter was an organized coordinated killing
spree to instil terror in the hearts of Indians.
The mention of terrorism immediately makes one recall the ghastly images of 9/11, 26/11 and the likes. It is therefore foolish to disassociate this modern and more poignant meaning of terrorism that resonates with mindless killing of innocent civilians.
Terrorism has since 9/11, become synonymous with Islamic militancy and while pre 9/11 acts of terror can be said to have more purpose than just killing civilians, post 9/11 acts of terror have largely targeted civilians and their primary aim seems to be body count and nothing else. It is in this context that most people of our country and the world have come to see terrorism as.
But, before I conclude this part of definitions and the nature of terrorism and its association with revolution I feel I should mention Khudiram Bose, the 19-year-old martyr of India’s freedom struggle. Khudiram Bose was executed by the British government after his unsuccessful attempt to kill Kingsford, magistrate of Muzaffarpur, Bihar that resulted in the deaths of Kingsford’s wife and daughter of barrister Pringle Kennedy. Why I mention this is to remind that even though the intent was never to kill civilians (British civilians nonetheless) this act of Khudiram Bose classifies in my opinion as an act of terror. I have immense respect for Khudiram Bose’s sacrifice and I must add that Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki (Bose’s friend who was also sent along with him to complete the mission) were deeply pained by the deaths of the civilians and both in their own ways attempted to clear their conscience. When civilians fight an oppressive regime, collateral damage is bound to happen.
Terrorists are different when viewed from the social context of time, the target selection of the terror, the reason for the use of terror, the justification of the use of terror, the evil that terrorists seek to address, and the goals they have. These and other factors will always differentiate terrorists in history, time and place. But the use of terror as a tool to achieve desired goals has not changed. The tactics of terror, whether used to instil fear or to free the oppressed, do not change.
We must understand the context of the word terrorist when we talk about events before 1947 primarily because, the Indian revolutionaries appear to have used the word in association with state terror and have borrowed heavily from (as well as inspired by) the Russian Revolution of 1917. Bhagat Singh had exclaimed that he was inspired by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and regularly read from a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” during his final days before execution. The author and historian in question, Bipin Chandra had himself stated that had Bhagat Singh been alive he would have become the Lenin of India. Thus, there is a grave misconception that appears to have risen from a political motive to project an account of history as an attempt to denigrate the image of India’s most revered revolutionary. Bhagat Singh was a secular, humanist, atheist and despised the state aka British India (anarchist?). He was an enemy of the state and he called himself so. So, an important question that needs to be answered is if we decide not to use the word terrorist because of its association with Radical Islamist groups from the middle east, Afghanistan (and Pakistan) are we committing the folly of omitting important facts from our history of struggle under the British Rule?
Winston Churchill said “History is written by the victors”. If this holds true then, perhaps a rewriting of the history is not a bad idea. However, before we begin to rewrite history to shine light on things hid from us before we have to ask the question, who is the victor? When India gained independence from the British in 1947 did Indians become victors or is there something more to it. Is India’s struggle for independence merely a political struggle or as many historians (Bipin Chandra included) have noted that it was also a struggle for economic freedom, women emancipation, ending caste oppression and a step towards egalitarian development. We are a long way from achieving either of these things and to me we are in no real sense of the word victors.
Having said that, and despite being an anarcho-communist myself, I must concede that mentioning the word terrorist alongside revolutionary is while, not an attempt to malign the image of the great revolutionaries of India it paints a different picture of them. A picture we have come to associate with post 9/11 acts of terror.
The agony is that while we can be certain that our revolutionaries always tried to avoid collateral damage and that their target was always the oppressive institution that was the British India regime it is unimaginable for most of us to think of terrorism (and acts of terror), post 9/11 as anything but, an assault on innocent civilians with the intent to cause as much hurt as possible and break our spirit and the spirit of democracy, freedom and liberty. While, the historians are right in defending Bipin Chandra and his usage of the term terrorist alongside revolutionary, we must acknowledge that the word Terrorist no longer applies to Indian Revolutionaries whether we are talking about Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and their associates or whether we are talking about Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki. They are our heroes and martyrs.
Bhagat Singh was not just a revolutionary “terrorist” though. In his essay titled “Why am I an atheist? “he shares his ideas about religion and society. In my opinion that makes him a reformer and a thinker. It is one of the reasons I and most of Indian youth is drawn towards Bhagat Singh. What I am wary of however, is the way right wing Hinduism is trying to paint Bhagat Singh in saffron color. Bhagat Singh was a Red i.e. a communist at heart. He despised the class (caste) based discrimination prevalent in India and if he were alive today he would be the Liberal, intellectual leftist that the present ruling party in India finds intolerable. Maybe, I am stepping out of line here but, he would be also opposed to the idea of socialism that most political parties are trying to project. But, we can make a lot of assumptions on what ifs which would lead us nowhere. It is just my opinion that the other (many) aspects of Bhagat Singh’s life are being overlooked by everyone including the leftists. We can debate whether Bhagat Singh was a revolutionary “terrorist” or not but, I am convinced that he was a misfit, a thinker ahead of his time and his and his comrades’ greatest sacrifice for India has been turned into a politics of power which he always hated.
In my opinion, I wish to say that the word revolutionary terrorist should remain in the book but, in only one or two places and with a footnote explaining the context of the word terrorist and terrorism as used by Bhagat Singh in “Philosophy of the Bomb”. It would be a colloquial mistake to omit this fact when talking about our revolutionaries. Otherwise, the story of India’s struggle for independence would be rendered incomplete[i].
Bipin Chandra, M. M. (1987). India’s Struggle for Independence. Penguin Books India.
Garrison, A. H. (n.d.). Defining Terrorism: Philosophy of the Bomb, Propaganda by Deed and Change Through Fear and Violence. Academia.edu.
Human Rights. (2004, April 2). Retrieved from South Asia Citizens Web: http://www.sacw.net/hrights/judgementjehanabad.doc
Indian Airlines Flight 814. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Airlines_Flight_814
Vohra, B. C., & SIngh, B. (n.d.). Letter, Writtings and Statements of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his Copatriots. Retrieved from Shaheed Bhagat SIngh: http://shahidbhagatsingh.org/index.asp?link=bomb
 The Moderates defended Tilak, the Extremist, and non-violent Congressmen passionately defended
revolutionary terrorists and communists alike during their trials. (p. 3, Introduction: India’s Struggle for Independence, Bipin Chandra, 1987).
For example, a sympathetic treatment of the Russian terrorist activities against Tsarism would be published in such a way that the reader would immediately draw a parallel between the Indian Government and the Revolutionary Terrorists of Bengal and Maharashtra. (p. 81, see 1).
…Others like Aurobindo Ghosh (with his growing links with revolutionary terrorists) kept open the option of violent
resistance if British repression was stepped up. (p. 107, see 1).
The revolutionary terrorists also established centres abroad. (p. 124, see1).
The Nagpur session, thus, committed the Congress to a programme of extra-constitutional mass action. Many groups of revolutionary terrorists, especially in Bengal, also pledged support to the movement. (p. 169).
It promulgated an ordinance on 25 October 1924 under which it conducted raids on Congress offices and
house searches and arrested a large number of revolutionary terrorists and Swarajists and other Congressmen including Subhas Chandra Bose and two Swarajist members of the Bengal
legislature, Anil Baran Roy and S.C. Mitra. (p. 228,230, India’s Struggle for Independence, Bipin Chandra, 1987).
 DU book calls Bhagat Singh a “revolutionary terrorist”, courts controversy. The Hindu, April 27, 2016.
 Schmid’s definition of terrorism was adopted in a 2003 ruling (Madan Singh vs. State of Bihar);
 Philosophy of the Bomb, Bhagat Singh, Bhagawati Charan Vohra, 1929. HSRA, India
 On Friday 24 December, 1999, Indian Airlines flight IC 814 en route from Kathmandu, Nepal to New Delhi, India was hijacked by terrorists who demanded that Indian government release three militants (Indian Airlines Flight 814, n.d.).
 On 26th Nov, 2008 a group of heavily armed terrorists attacked the Taj Mahal Hotel, Oberoi Hotel, CST Station and several other places in Mumbai. 166 Indians lost their lives that day.
 Defining Terrorism: Philosophy of the Bomb, Propaganda by Deed and Change Through Fear and Violence by Arthur H. Garrison (Garrison)
[i] I must add ironically, that while I have tried to be as thorough as possible I have only talked about Terrorism since 9/11 and have left a lot of things unspoken thus making this essay of mine incomplete in some way. The points that I wish I could add would be the different representations of Indian History that seems to have been sparked by the rise of right wing nationalism in India purported by BJP politically and RSS ideologically. However, I decided to refrain from making this a political opinion and instead opted to give a personal opinion. The views in this essay are mine and mine alone. The sources I have cited are all in public domain to my knowledge. This essay has not been written for profit.